Thursday, 7 February 2013

Good Movie: Smoke Signals

"There are some children who aren't really children at all; they're just pillars of flame that burn everything they touch. And there are some children who are just pillars of ash, that fall apart when you touch them. Victor and me, we were children of flame and ash."

With an opener like that, you'd be forgiven for assuming this all-Native production is a heavy social justice film.

Psych!

Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals is a modest miracle. Written by a Native, directed by a Native, starring Natives, it takes place in the present, a place where Natives are pointedly not welcome. (Take it from a Scot: The Man likes his tribals historical.) Yet for a' tha' it's a very sweet movie, wherein innocence is not so much lost, as worked into whatever comes next.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire (allegory intended) and Victor are frenemies from Idaho's Cœur d'Alêne reserve. Their destinies, like their pasts, are intricately intertwined, though they appear diametric opposites. Thomas is perennial odd man out: a fumbling nerd who seems to live in a world that's not there. Maybe he's a shaman. Maybe he's autistic. Could be he's both; each one of director Chris Eyre's scenes encode about twelve concurrent realities, any one of which is liable to surface at any time. And Thomas is his translator. He's the seer in Coke bottle glasses; the good son without parents; the helpless hero.

Meanwhile, Victor is too anchored in the physical, too distracted by hard-cold to understand how weak that can make you. To borrow Thomas's image, Victor is a pillar of fire, permanently glowering over iniquities by no means trivial, though compared to those of his congenitally happy companion they can seem so. Shackled together -- to Victor's enduring annoyance -- they will make a long, winding
journey, first through the lovingly-rendered homeland of their ancestors, and then the entire American West. (In a refreshing turnabout, the part of the Southwest is played by the Martian landscape of Washington's coulee country; just an hour and change west, it is in fact as different from the lush Palouse as Arizona.)

Throughout, rezgeist eddies and froths like the Spokane River. In the very first scene, a doomed couple hurl their newborn from a burning house, into the steady arms of a feckless drunk with the heart of a warrior. The power of that metaphor, and its accuracy, are breath-taking. And the beat goes on: basketball; frybread; mothers; fathers; automobiles; water; hair; the entire film crackles with aboriginal touchstones. You could write an MFA thesis on The Symbology of Sherman Alexie's "Smoke Signals". (Send me a link if you do.)

There's also a lot of (coincidental?) Zen in Eyres' world, where nothing is what it appears, yet everything is patently obvious if you can decide to see it. My favourite teaching: the boys voyage to the end of the earth with a jar of gold; come back with a jar of ashes. As Thomas points out, we all travel heavy with illusions.

But the greatest fun comes from the palpable glee with which director and writer lay waste to Hollywood "Indian" conventions. "Hey Victor!" says Thomas, "I'm sorry 'bout your dad." "How'd you hear about it?" Victor asks. "I heard it on the wind," says the spooky medicine-kid. "I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. And your mom was just in here cryin'."

Later, having hitched a ride off-rez with two backward-driving contraries (another overlapping wink at First Nations tradition and politics), they're asked if they've got their passports. "But it's the United States," Thomas protests. "Damn right it is," says the driver. "That's as foreign as it gets." Anyone who has lived in a bush community will appreciate the sentiment. In fact, my own village once had a bootstrap radio station that broadcast traffic reports identical to those on KREZ: "Big truck just went by. Now it's gone."

The boys fall further down the highway, Thomas's old-school braids and pronounced aboriginal accent underscoring the sense of spacewalking, until they arrive at last… on another reserve. One that is simultaneously completely different from and exactly the same as the one they just left. (Cough*zen*cough.)

Canadian viewers will be forgiven for assuming Smoke Signals is one of ours; it's about aboriginals, and the cast is almost entirely Canadian. I guess that's both the good and the bad news. Good, because Evan Adams (a straight-up doctor in real life), and the more familiar Adam Beach, Gary Farmer, and Tantoo Cardinal, all act like they're not acting. And bad, because apparently there aren't enough experienced Native actors in the States to pull off such a film by themselves. Here's hoping that changes.

Also terrific is Tom Skerritt, whose sixty-odd screen seconds, as a weary, competent Arizona sheriff, would qualify him for token white guy, if the moment weren't one of the movie's most memorable.

And then there's Irene Bédard. Sigh. What can be said about this grossly under-signed actress that won't jeopardise one's monastic street cred? How about this: I esteem Ms. Bédard for her effortless performance, her deft, sensitive handling of a pivotal role, and her ability to imbue any scene with grace and immediacy. Contrary to rumour, my admiration of this accomplished thespian has nothing to do with the fact that she's, like, virulently beautiful, pulling down six to eight thousand millihelens on a grey Tuesday. I would further like to deny categorically that I originally watched this film, or any other of the every single ones she's ever been in, just because she was in it.

The soundtrack here jacks up the property values as well. Most of it is the raw, powerful Colville musician Jim Boyd, singing lyrics by Alexie. A few others are chucked in for symmetry, notably the multi-layered Ulali masterpiece, All My Relations.

It may be true, as Thomas says, that "the only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV", but this production goes a long way toward making the world a better place in the best possible way: by simply giving genius and insight a platform. I don't know if Alexie and Eyre knew this, but their movie isn't really about aboriginals at all. It's about humanity, all of us, as manifested in one of our ten thousand hoops. (And I was chaffin' you before; no way they didn't know.)

So in the end, the most moving thing about Smoke Signals is how aboriginal it's not. Alexie nails the thing in a final disclaimer at credits' end: "Any similarity to actual persons, living, dead, or indigenous, is purely coincidental."

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